21 June 2022
His career in railway and model railway public-relations was recently crowned with a BRM lifetime acheivement award. Howard Smith quizzes the former Exclusive Models Marketing Executive for Locomotion Models on mastering brand awareness and, at times, damage limitations.
Dennis Lovett (left) seen promoting CrossRail at Olympia in 1989 when working for Network SouthEast. He stands beside Driver John Forbes of Slade Green Depot who built the impressive model of Central London with several of his friends in the Gravesend area. Nearly four decades later, CrossRail opened! NETWORK SOUTHEAST
Congratulations, you were recently awarded the BRM Lifetime Achievement Award – only a handful of these exist. How did that feel?
I was totally shocked to be honest; I did not see it coming. Having come into the model railway industry late in my working life, I am not sure 16 years constitutes a lifetime! I feel somewhat humbled to stand alongside some of the great names in the model railway world who were far more deserving than myself. Particularly pleasing is that I was the third former Bachmann employee to receive the award, after the late Merl Evans and my former MD, Graham Hubbard. It shows how far Bachmann has come in its relatively short lifetime.
Reflecting on your career with railways and model railways, what are your highlights?
There were many but perhaps the best example was the celebrations for the 150th Anniversary of the London & Greenwich Railway at Cannon Street in 1986. I was working in the Southern Region’s advertising department at the time and had been asked to become part of the three-man team putting together an exhibition of model railways alongside full size exhibits. I had a long involvement in the hobby as a member of the Milton Keynes MRS which I had joined on its formation at the age of 15.
We pulled in lots of favours from our contacts and persuaded the General Manager of the SR, Gordon Pettit, to allow us to bring in SR King Arthur Class 4-4-0 No. 777 Sir Lamiel to stand in a platform albeit under strict conditions. We filled the place and 48,000 people attended over the weekend. It is probably the largest attendance at a model railway event ever!
SR King Arthur Class 4-4-0 No. 777 'Sir Lamiel' poses for the camera during the Cannon Street Station exhibition in August, 1986.
I was involved as one of the team launching Network SouthEast and one which celebrated the end of InterCity just eight years later. I was also involved with persuading model manufacturers to get those liveries on to models.
The best years of my career came after joining up with my former boss Chris Green a week or so after he joined Virgin Trains – which at the time was probably the most hated train company in the world. Virgin delivered every one of its promises and turned it completely around. I was immensely proud to be part of it. During that time, we were one of the sponsors of both Model Rail Scotland and Warley National Model Railway Exhibition. In 2000, our Warley stand featured the largest model railway kit ever to attend the show. A driving car body shell was diverted on its way from Bristol Docks (having arrived from Alstom in Italy) to Washwood Heath (the Alstom factory which put all the components together). Bogies were brought in from Washwood Heath along with headlights and other components which were fitted in with double-sided tape. The components were lowered on to the pre-laid track panel and the rest of the stand built around it. It left the show to begin its journey down the production line the next day.
During that time, we encouraged every model manufacturer to produce models of Virgin Trains (VT) which began with Graham Farish revealing a new range of VT-liveried models at Warley in 1999 just a few months later.
I remember leading a party of trade journalists to Bombardier at Brugge. We had agreed with Bachmann that they would produce the Class 220 model (also its tilting equivalent the Class 221). In the party was Merl Evans, Bachmann’s chief designer, who was whisked away to the design department shortly after arrival to obtain all the information required to produce the model. He left with the full works drawings for the real one, while the rest of us toured the production lines. In the party was a journalist from one of the publishing groups which also produced a model railway title. He never put two and two together and missed the model railway ‘scoop’ of the century!
When we launched the Pendolino at the test track at Old Dalby we spent several days building facilities which would be attended by the worlds press. As Chris Green reached the end of his presentation, he invited the audience to turn and face the future at which time the floor revolved, the sides of the marquee dropped by releasing the magnets that held it up and a Pendolino stormed through the tunnel at 125 mph with ‘not the red arrows’ storming over the top of it in a flypast making impressive television viewing. It was without doubt the most dramatic new train launch ever and the coverage in newspapers, radio and television alongside the trade, regional and local press was staggering. I doubt we will ever see such an event again in the world of railway public relations and most certainly I will not be the one sweating buckets behind the scenes. When it comes to PR, there is no one better at it than Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.
Approaching almost a decade in service, Virgin Trains 'Pendolino' 390017 at Euston station on February 26, 2011. ANDREW BUTCHER
When we were choosing names for the Pendolinos, we dusted off our old Ian Allan locomotive spotting books. It became clear that some of us had an affinity for the Western Class 52 diesels, and by changing the word Western to Virgin we soon had the basis for a series. We also wanted to use the names of Cities that were served by them, as carried by the LMS Princess Coronation Class. Preston and Wolverhampton weren’t cities in Stanier’s day but we added them to those that were. Unfortunately, I was not able to get City of Milton Keynes on to the list despite it being carried by 86211. Now that Milton Keynes has had city status confirmed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II as part of the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, perhaps that will happen in due course!
As a ‘PR person’ how has your engagement with the media changed over the years?
In my early days we dealt with reporters and transport writers from the national, regional and local press as well as the railway press who would ring up the press office with a question. TV news reports were scheduled for early morning, lunch time, around six a clock and late evening on the two main channels with regional optouts. You therefore had more time to prepare your statements or interviews. We would also proactively mark major projects, station rebuilding/refurbishment, new marketing initiatives and the launch of new trains with events and we issued press releases and images almost on a daily basis.
After leaving school, I had worked for seven years as a journalist for a small publishing company who produced magazines for members of The Boys’ Brigade. I, therefore, had the benefit of knowing how journalists worked. That experience certainly came in useful when I later found myself editing the Bachmann Collectors Club magazine many years later.
When the Watford crash happened in August 1996, we were suddenly thrown into a different world where twenty-four-hour news channels had evolved. The crash itself was quickly discovered by a tv crew who flew round the M25 in a helicopter to report on traffic disruption having taken off from Elstree just minutes before. I was on call and still in the office when I was notified of the event by the Daily Mirror who had a caller on the other line who claimed to have one of our trains in her back garden! At that point, the duty controller ran into the room and confirmed the unfortunate event and that two of our trains were involved. Our offices were next to the police station in Watford and every vehicle left the car park with blue lights and sirens blazing. We worked all night, and it ranks alongside Clapham, Purley and Winsford as probably the worst days of my entire working life.
We also saw the emergence of forums and electronic news channels. When I joined Bachmann, I was aware of MRE MAG edited by Pat Hammond, but was soon contacted by RMweb which was an emerging force in the hobby. I worked on building working relationships with all magazines. That involved including RMweb and MRE MAG in the same way as we worked with the printed press and treating everyone equally. I was known in my days with the railway for never giving ‘exclusive’ stories to anyone and I carried that over to Bachmann and later Locomotion.
Forums create an opportunity for people to ‘sound off’ often without knowing the facts or even contacting the manufacturer first if they have a problem. I monitored the Bachmann and Farish sections of RMweb several times during each day and if issues arose, I issued statements via Andy York to ensure that the issues were resolved quickly and before the flames had time to develop into a full-scale crisis. Having been on-call when working in the railway industry, I always ensured that the mobile was on and that I was available when contacted.
The famous Class 40 grease issues were far better explained by inviting RMweb over to Barwell to film the problems we encountered and how we were working to resolve them to everyone’s satisfaction. It certainly got the message across. PR is now an important part of the model railway industry and sits alongside marketing and advertising as a major tool of the trade.
From your time with Bachmann, what changes have you seen in the public’s perception and expectations of railway models? Do you feel modellers’ expectations are easier or harder to manage than when you started?
Unlike the real railways where bad experiences are often soon forgotten, model railway customers tend to focus on them for far longer. If I had a pound for everyone who I spoke to on Bachmann stands at exhibitions who would not buy an A1 Class locomotive because they believed them to be fitted with a faulty motor, then I would have retired years ago. While the first batch were recalled and had new motors fitted, every release after that was not subjected to the problem, but convincing people otherwise was a challenge.
You almost feel that some people are looking for errors or faults with the release of every new model. I have seen the lengths the design engineers in every company go to ensure that each model is as accurate as possible and how much it ‘hurts’ when things are not right. As prices have increased so have expectations. When I started in the hobby, we were lucky if an RTR item bore a close resemblance to the prototype. We are in a totally different place today.
Tell us about your time working with Locomotion Models – is there a star model which stands out for you?
I had worked with the National Railway Museum when Bachmann produced the first few models for them (DP1 Deltic and City of Truro) so was aware of the importance of the brand when I was invited to join them on a part-time basis, after retiring in 2018.
The launch of the ‘D’ Class was particularly important as we staged it at York, pre-Covid, and no one attending knew what we were announcing. We gave updates on the various models alongside our partners in the project, Rails of Sheffield and Dapol. We also outlined the forthcoming developments at our museums at Shildon and York before going down to reveal the ‘D’ Class. The press had access to the footplate and were able to interview all the key players. We then returned to the theatre to enable Dapol to outline how the model had been developed and its various features.
While we have worked with several manufacturers to produce outstanding models since, they have appeared under Covid restrictions, and we were constrained on how we could introduce them to potential customers through the media. We filmed in conjunction with a magazines digital channel during lockdown at Shildon to reveal the Bachmann ‘Precedent’ and announced where and when it would be revealed to everyone. The results were staggering emphasising the role that digital platforms can play in promoting products.
Locomotion Models, in partnership with Rails of Sheffield (corporate partners of the National Railway Museum) commissioned Bachmann to produce an exclusive model of Webb’s L&NWR Improved Precedent. Pictured is No. 790 ‘Hardwicke’, as preserved in the National Collection at York, sporting L&NWR lined-black livery with white cab roof.
There are many new products under development and in my now voluntary role I am still involved in helping to enable them to reach a conclusion. I may also help out on the Locomotion stand from time to time, so you may not have seen the last of me yet.
Many smaller model railway companies lack experience in attracting new customers through managed media releases. What do you feel is the best way to bring new customers to a brand? Do you have any examples?
I was somewhat fortunate in joining a progressive manufacturer in Bachmann who led by delivering plenty of innovations such as RP25 profile wheels, NEM coupling pockets and DCC locomotives to name a few. There was always plenty to publicise along with a programme of new models every year as well as releasing review samples to the press. We also supplied support to our retailers and to members of the Bachmann Collectors Club through its magazine and other activities.
A Bachmann wheelset to RP25 standard, which governs flange depth and profile, plus tread slope, width and radii of turned edges.
My advice to any new manufacturer would be to look at what the other manufacturers do, what they do well and develop a PR strategy accordingly. Avoid the things you consider they do badly and don’t promise things you cannot deliver. Develop working relationships with the media across its ever-evolving forms and ensure that there is someone in the company is authorised to represent you as the official spokesperson.
When there is bad news to deliver, be honest and deliver it. You cannot brush it under the carpet or pretend it never happened. It will only come back to bite you!
I remember sitting down with Graham Hubbard with the assembled media to explain how prices would be increasing due to wage increases imposed by the Chinese Government which would see labour prices increase by 20% per annum for five years. During our presentation we were totally honest about the situation which would lead to the retail prices increasing across the board and those assembled appreciated our efforts to explain it. This was long before the effects of raw material increases, fuel, shipping, container hire, the ongoing Covid situation and the current problems in the Ukraine which are all reflected in today’s pricing.
What are the biggest PR gaffes you have seen?
Probably the greatest gaffe ever was delivered during a speech by Gerald Ratner, the head of a well-known chain of jewellers at the time. He said they sold rubbish – it was intended as a joke to a gathering at the Royal Albert Hall, but it managed to close 2,500 shops and turn a company that had just made £125m profit into a total disaster within minutes. PR is also about ensuring that people making speeches deliver the script – particularly if you have had the responsibility of writing most of it!
During my railway career we were due to name 33112, Templecombe. It had been prepared at Eastleigh, and on arrival at Templecombe had suffered a component failure and it arrived for the naming ceremony looking anything but spotless. A quick visit to the village stores to buy every available cleaning product including buckets and mops rescued the situation. We managed to put it in the only siding up against the former goods shed and clean two ends and one side before the naming event took place. We got away with that one, but then it was announced it would work a special down to Paignton. I believe 33112 made it to Yeovil Junction before it expired. That was the nearest I came to having a PR disaster on my CV.
How do you view the health of the model railway hobby now and what do you think may change in the future?
I look back to when I first started in the hobby and what was available then. Nothing was compatible and you were very much hostage to whatever system Santa delivered. Today everything (apart from the Märklin stud contact system) is compatible wherever you buy it around the World.
I can also remember times when no one dared walk into a club room with anything that was not scratch or kit-built. Ready to run was not railway modelling and was dismissed by many at the time as nothing more than toys. How times have changed – today most clubs have layouts that rely solely on products from the various manufacturers to operate their layouts.
Today’s manufacturers are delivering products that surpass the highest standards set by even professional model-makers back then.
We now have more models available than ever before, albeit on a batch production system. My one worry is that there is so much being announced that we have perhaps too much choice today. While many of us have a yearning for steam or early diesel/electric operations, readers will be inspired by what is running out there on the big railway today. The realisation for me is that many of the trains I helped launch are now heading for the scrap yard – at least the Pendolino’s are still running – hopefully for a few more years yet!
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